A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 23, 2012.
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Sometimes a subject is so delicate or painful we aren’t comfortable posing questions about it. We would rather be comfortably uninformed. You’ve heard people say, “Ignorance is bliss.” Sometimes people don’t want to tackle a hard problem.
At Mark 9:37 we read that the disciples who followed Jesus did not understand what he was saying when he spoke of his approaching betrayal, death, and resurrection. They had questions, but were afraid to ask Jesus. They had Jesus to themselves. He deliberately withdrew from the crowded nature of his ministry so he could engage in teaching reserved for them. Yet, they didn’t ask questions about that teaching.
Sometimes we are afraid to admit that we don’t know or understand what a speaker is talking about. Sometimes we don’t want to contemplate the subject. Sometimes we don’t raise questions because we don’t know how to put our doubts, questions, fears, and uncertainties into words.
So, we live with un-asked questions. Whether we do so out of the desire or need to be blissfully ignorant, to avoid revealing what we don’t know, or because we somehow can’t find the right words to express our concerns, or for other reasons, the result is the same. We decide to make it the best way we can without asking, and therefore we decide to make it without knowing and without understanding what we don’t know and understand. We live with un-asked questions.
Jesus continued walking toward Jerusalem. The disciples continued walking with him. His talk about dying and resurrection was the “elephant” the disciples chose to ignore about his sense of God’s purpose for his living and his notion about greatness.
Instead, they began bickering among themselves about rank and status. When Jesus asked what they were arguing about they didn’t answer. They didn’t ask him to explain what his death and resurrection would mean. They didn’t want to talk about God’s ministry for Jesus and their role in it. That conversation would have required them to listen to Jesus talking about self-denial, self-sacrifice, and service.
The disciples put value in being important so that was what they talked about—which of them would be the “big shot”! They were so out of touch with God’s will that they preferred to argue among themselves about rank and status than communicate with Jesus about ministry. When Jesus asked what they had been bickering about, the disciples didn’t want to reveal that they were more interested in self-promotion than self-denial.
That appears to be a sadly familiar occurrence. Like those bickering disciples who were competing with each other for status, we often seem to prefer competing with each other than knowing God’s purpose for our living and growing in that purpose. The minutes of church meetings and the things religious people talk about focus more on budgets, buildings, preachers, and other stuff than on living for God by following Jesus. We prefer arguing about who is the greatest preacher, what church has the most impressive worship style, and similar stuff than going deep with God about becoming radical instruments of love, truth, and healing in the world.
So Jesus answered the argument about rank, status, importance, and greatness by changing the subject. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Instead of joining the argument about pecking order, Jesus turned the argument into a call for service. God isn’t calling us to compete with each other for rank and status. God has called us through Jesus Christ to be servants.
And to make sure the disciples got the point, Jesus gave them an object lesson. He took a child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Welcoming a child was a radical turn away from every other way of defining power, rank, status, and influence when Jesus lived among us. It still is. Then and now, children represent the least powerful, most overlooked, and less-welcomed in society.
- The child Jesus cradled represented the people we consider unimportant.
- The child represented people who are weak and helpless.
- The child represented people without social, commercial, and political power.
- The child represented the people who can least help us.
- The child represented the people who require the most care.
- The child represented the people who are excluded from our discussions, decisions, and strategies about “what really matters.”
The child Jesus cradled represented that 47 percent category of people that people such as Governor Mitt Romney think don’t matter. They don’t matter because they are poor, sick, elderly, incarcerated, uneducated, unemployed, and vulnerable in other ways. The child Jesus cradled represents weak and vulnerable humanity and our trembling world. By taking that child into his arms Jesus was telling and showing us that we do our best and most important living when we embrace those who are weak, helpless, vulnerable, and fragile.
It is more than a little odd, and regrettable, that so many religious people have embraced the value system of the bickering disciples rather than the example of Jesus. Many religious people think we spend too much time and money helping people.
I refer to religious people who think we can’t afford to help all people have healthcare.
I’m thinking of religious people who don’t want to pay taxes to help all children have well paid public teachers and excellent school buildings.
Yes, I’m talking about religious people who complain about helping unemployed people keep their homes and provide for their families. These are often people who talk about believing in “family values.”
I’m thinking about flag-waving religious people who can somehow afford to support every war opportunity and adventure. But they complain when asked to pay taxes to help disabled, unemployed, and homeless veterans and their families.
I’m talking about religious people who have accepted the morally bankrupt notion of “compassionate conservatism” that glorifies private wealth, privilege, and power while criticizing altruism and helping our needy neighbors.
The image of Jesus cradling a child forces us to ponder whether we are living to serve, protect, provide, and welcome others who are vulnerable, needy, and excluded. Who are the helpless people we are embracing? Who are the people we are protecting? Who are the excluded people we are including? Followers of Jesus must not hide from them. We must not allow the world to operate as if people don’t need our help, protection, guidance, and nurturing attention. We must understand that greatness with God involves being servants of and to people who have nothing to give in return. Jesus cradling a child is God’s answer to our greatness question.
God’s answer is also God’s invitation. In Jesus, God calls you and me to become partners in divine cradling. We are summoned to join God in loving, healing, forgiving, building, defending, and providing. God beckons us in Jesus to become great through service, great through forgiveness, and great through suffering for others. God calls us to welcome the excluded, empower the weak, and protect them from being mistreated by the strong.
We can do this by first discarding and debunking the notions of rank, importance, and greatness of our world. We will become more like Jesus only by recognizing the big difference between God’s answer to our questions about purpose and greatness (Jesus welcoming a child) and the worldly notion of purpose and greatness defined by status, rank, and privilege (represented by the bickering disciples).
Then we must intentionally and constantly challenge our time and place by acting out God’s inclusive and sacrificial love for others in obedience to the example of Jesus. God’s answer to our questions about purpose and greatness in living isn’t the imperial power of Julius Caesar, the wealth of Warren Buffett, or the fame of Jay Z and Beyonce. Our role model is the life, death, and resurrection of a fellow named Jesus. We must intentionally and constantly approach life as Jesus did.
God’s answer to our unasked questions about the purpose of living and the meaning of ministry is the self-sacrificial and child-cradling Jesus. God’s answer is the crucified Jesus on the cross of Calvary. God’s answer is the risen Jesus.
Let’s accept God’s answer and invitation about purpose and greatness. By God’s Spirit, let’s love as Jesus loved, live as Jesus lived, welcome all as Jesus welcomed all, suffer for others as Jesus did, and be renewed people whose lives are overwhelming evidence of God’s love, truth, joy, mercy, and peace for all. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.